Jeff Thomson: The man who could knock your head off with a cricket ball
“Aww, mate, I just shuffle up and go wang.”
“He frightened me, and I was sitting 200 yards away”
The first quote was Jeff “Thommo” Thomson describing his bowling action. Such humility. The so-called “wang” was a delivery that consistently clocked upwards from 150 km/h, sometimes touching 160. At speeds like those, a regulation cricket ball (that weighs around 160 grams) has the same level of impact as a Humvee doing sixty (though the area of contact is significantly lesser, of course); more than enough momentum to shatter the skull, and keep digging. A perfect Jeff Thomson delivery could kill you if it landed at the right place.
The second quote is by Keith “the Golden Boy” Miller, the greatest Australian all-rounder to ever take the field who considered himself fortunate to have played alongside Thomson and not against him.
Thomson had a rather unremarkable Test debut against Pakistan with a bowling action that could only be described as a kind of Russian ballet from hell. He’d lazily jog down the track, followed by an almighty backward tilt just before the crease, and a sling that’d make Lasith Malinga’s efforts seem like something out of My Little Pony. There was something inexplicably ominous each time this dance-routine occurred, and the ball would turn into a meteorite aiming for king and country. Having made a lot of heads turn and several others bleed while playing for New South Wales and Queensland in the 1972-73 season, expectations from him were sky-high.
It turned out to be the turkey of the year for Australian cricket. He returned with figures of 0/110. It would be revealed much later that Jeff Thomson had played for five straight days with a shattered bone in his foot, hiding the injury for fear of being dropped from the team.
He returned, after another bout of domestic cricket, in the 1974-75 Ashes series. The English were warned of what was headed their way. “I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch”, Thommo was quoted in a television interview. Yes, it did create a bit of a furore, but the guy was simply stating things as he saw them.
Pack-hunting with Dennis “stay-clear-or-get-hurt” Lillee, who manhandled batting line-ups, he ended the series with 33 wickets, injuring almost everyone holding a bat at some point.
Having traumatized many Englishmen, West Indies was next on the menu. Prior to the series, West Indian off-spinner Lance Gibbs apparently told Ian Chappell in all seriousness, “I can sort out Lillee, he has a wife and kids like me, but you’re responsible for that mad man Thomson. You must convince him not to kill me.” These days, you only hear people say things like that about Joseph Kony or Taliban chieftains.
In the two years following his lame duck debut, Thomson picked up a staggering 78 wickets in all of his 15 Tests. Wicket-keeper Rod Marsh admitted in not many words that Thomson had made his life exceedingly difficult behind the stumps. Understandable, for incidents of Thomson’s deliveries hitting the opposite sight-screen beating the wicket-keeper on the full after the one bounce on the pitch, were reported on several occasions. “The balls from Thommo’s deliveries thundered into my gloves with such force, it hurt me considerably,” the Aussie keeper said, and then added with a grin, “it was the best pain I had ever experienced.” Having kept wickets for most of Thomson’s Test career, he swears that the latter often touched speeds of 180 km/h. On a related note, English pace-legend Frank “Typhoon” Tyson made a startling revelation:
“Thompson is so fast and human reaction time is so slow that scientists have calculated that the batsman has to begin playing a stroke against him more than .062 of a second before Thommo lets go of the ball”.
Jeff Thomson seemed like an express-train let loose in international cricket. With him heading the pace-battery with Lillee, Australia was issuing death-sentences worldwide. It all came crashing down, literally, on Christmas Eve, 1976. Playing against Pakistan, he torpedoed into teammate Alan Turner as they both attempted a catch off Zaheer Abbas. The resultant collar-bone dislocation could have well been career-ending, and when he limped back a year later, he was never the same.
The speed dropped. He was still fast enough to terrorize Clive Lloyd in the 1977-78 series against West Indies (“Thomson struck Lloyd so hard in the groin that his protective box was turned inside out”), but the fear of Thommo charging down the track fast dissipated. The figures that followed were rather pedestrian for a bowler of his stature, though the mileage that he’d earned in the two years he’d lorded over the world earned him a permanent place in the side for as long as 1985. By the time he hung up an incredibly worn-out pair of boots, he’d picked up 200 Test wickets.
In almost two decades, the impact that Jeff Thomson had on international cricket remains irrefutable. His speeds are yet to be matched, and most of his contemporaries would swear by the fact that he was the most lethal bowler they’d ever known.
“I didn’t come in and bowl your little outswingers and all that,” he gets candid on national television years later, and somehow you know he means every word, “I came in to let you know, ‘Hey, this is my turf. Get out!’”